A Tribute to the “Ocean Genius” – Walter Munk

13 Feb

The great man, who seemed like he would live forever, died Friday afternoon (February 8, 2019) at the age of 101. The New York Times had dubbed him the “Einstein of the Oceans” an appellation he rejected. He modestly bowed to Einstein’s towering intellect. Virtually unknown outside of scientific circles, Munk’s achievements have touched us all; from creating the science of wave prediction that greatly advantaged the D-Day invasion of 1944 to providing initial research pointing to global warming. A contributor to the Huffington Post, Max Guinn observed, “Following Munk’s accomplishments is a Forrest Gump journey through history.”

Walter Heinrich Munk was born October 19, 1917 in Vienna. It seemed that at home in Austria, he was only interested in skiing and had little interest in school. His banker parents shipped him off to a boarding school in upstate New York. The parents expected him to become a banker, an interest he never developed. They sent him to Columbia University hoping he would straighten out. It seemed to work a little. He focused a bit more scholastically even while running the school’s ski team.

Finally, his mother gave in. For a 2016 interview Munk shared,

“My mother gave me a tidy amount of money and said, ‘Do what you want.’

“I bought a DeSoto convertible, drove to Pasadena and showed up at Caltech. The dean said, ‘Let me pull your file.’ I said there was no file. I was so naive I thought you could go to college wherever you wanted.

“I was told that I could take an entrance exam in a month. I took a room at the corner of Lake and California and, for the first time in my life, really began studying. By some miracle, I passed the exam and became a student at Caltech.”

Later on, Munk fell for a girl and followed her to La Jolla, California where he spent the summer of 1939. While in La Jolla, he landed a job at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography (SIO) now part of the University of California San Diego (UCSD). That summer job led to Munk becoming the first graduate student at SIO. It was there that he developed a passion for the ocean and spent more than 80-years researching, teaching, discovering and building; never permanently leaving.

The Foundation at Home and Professionally

One of Munk’s greatest achievements came during World War II. With its outbreak, he enlisted in the Army but the Navy claimed him for its research lab on Point Loma. Learning of a planned amphibious landing in North Africa, Munk investigated the conditions and realized that waves there often exceeded the size that allowed safe landings. However, his warnings were ignored, so he enlisted the help of his mentor at SIO, Harald Sverdrup.

Sverdrup was a Norwegian Scientist who became the director of SIO in 1936. It was supposed to be a three year posting but because of WWII, he did not leave until 1948. Sverdrup was famous in the scientific community for his work as the lead scientist on Roald Amundsen’s North Polar expeditions. After he joined in Munk’s concern, the Navy could no longer ignore the issue. Together, they developed the Sverdrup/Munk Theory of Wave Prediction, which soon allowed for the safe landing of troops in North Africa. They had done what no one had done before, used science to predict surf conditions.

Their work is the basis for today’s surf reports which city fathers watch intently when extra high surf is forecast and avid surfers follow on a daily basis.

Munk and Sverdrup

Munk and Harald Sverdrup UCSD File Photo

Max Guinn described their results,

“As part of the war effort, the two established a school for wave prediction at Scripps, and over the next two years, they taught wave prediction to 100 graduates. In June of 1944, the graduates played a critical role in the D-Day landings in Normandy. The landings were originally scheduled for a stormy day, with high waves. Considering the wave predictions, Eisenhower postponed the landings to coincide with a 12 hour period of moderate waves. The Germans believed the sea would remain too rough for an invasion for another few weeks and, as a result, German General Rommel went home for a birthday party for his wife, taking the defenses way down. Equipped with excellent surf forecasting, Allied troops began landing at 3 in the morning on June 6. It was the beginning of the end of World War II.”  

Munk earned a Masters in Geophysics in 1940 from California Institute of Technology and a PhD in Oceanography in 1947 from UCLA.

Munk’s best friend was Roger Revelle. Munk and Revelle cemented their long professional and personal relationship during a 1952 year long research voyage. They first went to the Eniwetok Atoll to monitor the hydrogen bomb test for possible tsunami issues. They didn’t find a tsunami but they did have to strip off their clothes and throw them overboard when they were doused with a radioactive rain. Munk was also at the Bikini Atoll for the 1946 atomic bomb test where he put dye in the lagoons to see where the currents would disperse the radioactive products.

I have twice been invited to the Munk house that he named Seiche (pronounced saysh). A seiche is a standing wave in a body of water, a phenomenon for which Lake Erie is famous. Seiche sits at the top of a canyon overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The backyard is terraced to accommodate five levels of seating for his Folly Garden Theater. Several times a year, the Munk’s open their home for local high school and middle school students to perform the works of William Shakespeare on his stage.

The origins of this multi-million dollar home reflect a different age. In 2017, Lonnie Hewitt of the La Jolla Light interviewed Munk. Hewitt reports,

“In the late 1940s, a group of 19 forward-thinking Scripps Institution of Oceanography colleagues got together and bought 42 acres of Scripps Estates land for $42,000. They designated the canyon a common area, and subdivided the rest.

“‘There was a fateful dinner at Roger Revelle’s, and we all drew lots for the properties,’ Munk said. ‘I was No. 19.’

“He and his late wife, Judith, the artist/architect he met at SIO and married in 1953, were the first to start building.

“‘We had no contractor,’ Munk said. ‘Judy was in charge, and I did all the plumbing and electrical work. And Judy wasn’t just an architect; she knew how to mix cement. We had no money, so we went to the Bank of La Jolla, and asked for a $5,000 loan. The bank manager was ready to turn us down because we had no contractor, but when he came out and saw what we were doing, he gave us the loan.’”

Walter was married to Judith for almost 53-years until she died in 2006. In 2011, he married Mary Coakley his present wife and life companion.

Dr Munk Shakespear_Moment 2

Mary and Walter in Red – Top Level of the Folly Garden Theater – Photo by Ultican

Dave Schwab interviewed Munk for Sdnews.com. In one exchange he asked,

“To what do you attribute your success?

“Munk: ‘I would never have had the career I’ve had without Judith and my second wife, Mary Coakley-Munk. They both played such a significant part in my career, helping me getting work done.’”

History of Achievement

I had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Munk a little less than a year ago. I mentioned that I learned of him while reading about the Mohole project when attending high school. Munk immediately started sharing how that project was a failure but important scientific advancements came from it.

The goal of the Mohole project was to set up a deep drilling operation in the ocean where the earth’s crust in thinnest, penetrate the basalt crust and collect a sample of the mantle.

The book Seventy Years of Exploration in Oceanography quotes Dr. Munk,

“By 1961 we were aboard the CUSS I (named for the Continental, Union, Superior, and Shell Oil Companies) drilling off Guadalupe Island in 12,000 feet of water). Willard Bascom was in charge working with Ed Horton and Francois Lampietti. The drilling vessel was continually “underway,” driven by four large out-board propellers to maintain a fixed position relative to three sonic bottom transponders, the first demonstration of “dynamic positioning.” In spite of foul weather the drill penetrated 560 feet of sediment and then a few feet of basalt. John Steinbeck and Fritz Goro were along to record the event for Life magazine. The test was completed on time and within the allotted budget of $1.7 million. When Bascom wired NAS President Detlev Bronk that we had reached basalt, we took it for granted that Mohole was in the bag. Little did we realize that from this moment on the project was doomed.”

For Munk, Revelle and the rest, inventing a technique for dynamic positioning was not a significant problem. Munk had helped develop SONAR (Sound Navigation and Ranging) for detecting German U-boats during WWII. He adapted that knowledge to create a way for keeping a ship located in one spot on the ocean which was the main obstacle preventing deep ocean drilling. The obstacle they could not overcome was Lyndon Johnson giving Brown and Root who had no ocean drilling experience the $50 million contract to drill the Mohole. The money was spent with no results and the project folded.

In 1963, Munk studied waves generated by winter storms in the Southern Hemisphere and traveling thousands of miles throughout the Pacific Ocean. He learned that there was little decay of wave energy as these waves traveled great distances. To trace the path and decay of waves as they propagated northward, he established stations to measure waves from islands and at sea from New Zealand, to the Palmyra Atoll, and on to Alaska. Munk and his family spent nearly the whole of 1963 on American Samoa for this experiment. Walter and Judith Munk collaborated in making the film “Waves Across the Pacific” to document the experiment.


Judith and Walter Munk in 1964 – SIO Photo

Perhaps his biggest achievement was “the sound heard around the world.” This experiment was fundamentally about developing a way of getting a synoptic measurement of ocean temperatures by using sound. It was a major step forward in the study of global warming.

Heard Island

Map Showing Heard Island’s Location Relative to Antarctica

In 1991, Munk traveled to Heard Island in the South Indian Ocean about 3,000 miles from Antarctica to see if sound generated there could be heard in other parts of the world. Gail Galbraith of the New York Times reported,

“Hours before the experiment was to begin, Dr. Munk was awakened by a call from Bermuda. From thousands of miles away, the listening post had already heard the sound before the experiment had begun. As it turned out, the Bermuda post had heard the brief sound check that technicians had made while preparing for the full test.

‘“And that was the best news that I’ve ever heard,’ Dr. Munk said. The Heard Island broadcasts became known as the ‘sound heard around the world.”’

Max Guinn summarized some of Munk’s achievements writing, “He is recognized for groundbreaking discoveries in wave propagation, ocean drilling, tides, currents, worldwide ocean circulation, and even our understanding of why the moon stopped rotating.”

A Beloved Figure

In 2017, Munk turned 100-years old and on that occasion he was celebrated widely by Scripps Institute, UCSD and the city of San Diego. San Diego renamed a portion of La Jolla Shores; Walter Munk Way. At the naming ceremony he said, “It’s going to take a miracle to prevent it from being flooded when it reaches the same age [100].

In an interview with La Jolla Village News, Munk was asked what he wanted for his birthday. He responded,

“The nicest birthday present I could want, numerous letters from students of mine from all over the world saying I’d done something to help them, has already happened. That’s all I could ask for. So I’m very happy.”

Invariably great people have great character that engenders respect from all quarters. That certainly describes what I have learned about Walter Munk who even had a little time for me. I will close by including the following picture that just seems perfect.

Munk and the Dalai Lama

Mary Coakley-Munk, Walter Munk and The Dalai Lama at UCSD in 2017 (SIO-Photo)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: